in the valley

I have always had days like this. More often, far more often than I would like. So my life’s path has been a crooked one through mountain passes. Some days are glorious, inside and out, and somehow then the valleys, seen from above, look less threatening.

In the valley, though, I usually keep my head down. I stay off the social media. I don’t blog. What on earth could I possibly say from down here? Words seem to die on my lips, and those that don’t simply fade into the darkness. But today I’m going to have a good look around, and see what I can see. I am not sure that it will help me get out of the valley, but having a map might at least remind me that this isn’t the whole landscape.

The first thing I notice about the shape of this internal valley is chaos–a sort of verbal chaos, in which I feel I cannot speak. It isn’t so much that I have no words, but that they’re all tangled up. Like Reepicheep (in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), all the things that I might say paralyze me, and I fall silent. I might pick up a pen, and scribble madly in the darkness: but nothing I say there will ever be read by anyone.

The second thing I notice is the emptiness. There isn’t a soul around. Literally, at the moment, there isn’t anyone around–I am ‘working’ from home. Or at least I will be, when the internal fog lifts a little. But it is more empty than that. There is such a deep aloneness here. From this angle, I can see very clearly the despair that inspires suicide. It’s the most painful aspect of the darkness, the sense of being utterly and completely alone in the universe. I know that from outside, the total disregard for how others might ‘receive’ one’s death looks like selfishness. But from inside, the actual love is absolutely imperceptible. (Here my saving grace has always been my children, even before I had any–but that’s another story.) All those others who might miss me are lost to me already in the darkness.

Usually the emptiness overwhelms me, and I can look no more. Maybe this isn’t a bad exercise after all. The third thing that I notice in the valley, feeling my way along, is a sense of uselessness. I’m not actually good at or for anything. Here I discover the slope I slid down–almost always this is the place I fall in. In the world of social media, instant likes, and numbers of followers, this is a very, very easy place to stumble. It doesn’t help that I have a sought-after spouse. I have four small stalkers, but the rest of the world has absolutely no use for me whatsoever. I’ve lost sight, here, of the things I have done that have not been totally unappreciated, and the things I have been asked to do. I know they are there, but they, too, have disappeared into the blackness: if I did them, they weren’t actually any good; people are just too kind to me to say so. Anyone could have done better. (At the deepest part of this valley, I have no doubt that someone else would be a better mother to my children. Thankfully, I don’t seem to be there today.)

This is difficult, this mapping. This is why I usually shut the computer and find something to tidy. But I’ve started now, and I am too stubborn to give up. The next thing I notice is an eerie sort of timelessness. This moment–or this series of moments–seems isolated from the rest of my life, past and future. If I were to try to remember something that happened even yesterday, I’d struggle. I might be able to recall it, but that person in the past wouldn’t be me, at least not the same me that I am in this moment. As I think back on yesterday–just to try it–it’s like watching TV. I am not in the scene. Whoever it is that I am right now is not in the narrative of my life. Maybe that’s not exactly timelessness. Maybe it’s an aspect of something else.

The something else is a loss of gravity. Obviously, my feet are still on the floor. The laws of physics still obtain. But there is another sort of chaos. I’ve become separated somehow from my past and future, and my words have become jumbled. Nothing is where it ought to be; my thoughts have no foundation, no anchor. I cannot tell, exactly, internally, which way is forward and which way is back. And I cannot ask for directions. If I tried to speak, I wouldn’t say what I wanted: clear thinking is impossible.

This makes me feel slightly crazy. Also a little bit dizzy inside. I don’t know what to do next: this is the final thing, I think. This is the point at which I have to find something to tidy or I will do something bad to my computer. Because I can’t subdue this chaos by writing. I can’t make this darkness lift by describing it. When I was a teenager, this is the point at which I would fling my binder across the room. The rings would burst apart, and the pages of my life story (and some very bad poetry) would scatter around the room. Ah, then the outside would look like the inside, and in collecting and collating all those sheets of notebook paper I would somehow come back to myself.

As long as I can remember, it has been this way. Some days are worse than others. Some days the darkness nearly swallows me up for good. But something always intervenes, and for that I will be grateful. For probably a decade, I finished every single journal entry with the same verse from Ps 42:

Why are you downcast, o my soul? And why so disquieted within me? Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance                   and my God.

Maybe that’s the thing today, the thing that intervenes. Because I remember, really: I was there in that memory, even if it is a memory of utter despair. This is my story. Even if I can only see that I have often walked in darkness, I can see that I am still walking. And I think maybe, just maybe, I am not alone.

 

ordinary

screen-shot-2013-11-12-at-2-58-55-pmI read Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal a few years ago. Reading the original entries, in her neat handwriting, with imperfect spelling, drew me to her in a way her fiction never did. The darkness in the stories she wrote and the grim picture of human beings and the world we inhabit haunts me; it doesn’t make me want to re-read, or to read more. My tastes, sorry as I sometimes am to admit it, run more to the likes of Jane Austen and George Eliot. Anthony Trollope, even. But Flannery O’Connor’s journal was something entirely different. It in, she recorded her struggles as an aspiring writer and a faithful Catholic woman.

The entry that struck me most deeply recorded her frustration with the feeling of mediocrity. She thought she was mediocre! As difficult as I find her prose, I would never, ever call it that. She possessed a gift for fiction and for expressing that darkness about which I am so squeamish–so that however fearful I was about what was about to happen in her stories, I couldn’t just stop reading. But she worried about being mediocre in the midst of her struggles in writing and in life.

So it is, I think. I know I haven’t her gift for fiction, or her dedication. My energy is spent in so many different small channels that there is nothing that remains of it, no landmark to show where I have passed. I feel utterly mediocre, completely ordinary, no different from anyone else. The older I get, the clearer it becomes to me that the world for all time has been full mostly of ordinary folk. That’s how children are born and raised; that’s how crops are grown and harvested; that’s how the things that need doing day after day after day get done.

If anyone knows how to keep chasing dreams and still make sure that there are school clothes ready for the week, the homework gets done, and the children get to school on time (or thereabouts), I would love to hear how that goes. Because the ordinary ordinary seems like the place where dreams just die and hopes have to be transformed or they kill you. When all the energy is expended in the dawn-to-dusk routine, there’s not much left for chasing dreams by moonlight. The ghosts of hope linger, haunting me after bedtime. Sometimes the extraordinary interrupts, and shows something beyond endless to-do lists and dirty laundry. images-1

Mostly, though, it’s ordinary through and through. Someone please tell me there’s nothing wrong with that.

on weakness

These days are dark days, the days when Job’s lament (which I read out, in part, to a class on Monday) seems to voice the despair of my own soul–I, who have lost nothing and have healthy children. My darkness is of a different kind, and is heedless of all the good (and lack of it) in the world. So I have little to say. Luckily teaching means reading and re-reading, and today I find comfort and inspiration in the words of an encyclical more than six decades old.

For as the Apostle with good reason admonishes us: “Those that seem the more feeble members of the body are more necessary; and those that we think the less honourable members of the body, we surround with more abundant honour.” Conscious of the obligations of our high office, we deem it necessary to reiterate this grave statement today, when to our profound grief we see at times the deformed, the insane, and those suffering from hereditary disease deprived of their lives, as thought they were a useless burden to society; and this procedure is hailed by some as a manifestation of human progress, and as something that is entirely in accordance with the common good. Yet who that is possessed of sound judgement does not recognize that this not only violates the nature and the divine law written in the heart of every man, but that it outrages the noblest instincts of humanity? the blood of these unfortunate victims who are all the dearer to our Redeemed because thy are deserving of greater pity, “cries to God from the earth.”*

In all those who suffer or are in need, in all those who are small and weak, we ought to see Christ. Why is this so hard? We long to see Jesus–and here he is, right here. If only we had eyes to see him, we would find our heart’s desire.

 

*Pius XII, Mystici corporis (1943), 94

being human, part 2: on suicide

Humans are indeed created in the image of God. In us, God has planted the desire for eternity, and for true happiness–in other words, for God. The difficulty is that sin misdirects our desire and fools us into thinking that other things will satisfy us. Most of the stuff we see around us every day reinforces this false belief. Things cannot make us happy, no matter what the advertisements say.

We are also deceived in our self-image. That is, we are mistaken about who we are and what makes us good. The good that we are, and the good that we do comes from the Good itself: God. God created us in his image so that we might reflect it to one another and respect it in one another. This means, however, that we belong not only to ourselves, but to God and to our neighbors. So we are not meant to take our own lives in the same way that we are not meant to take the lives of others: they do not belong to us, to do with what we will.

But there is more. Choosing to live for the sake of bearing God’s image, when I am not sure I bear it clearly enough for anyone to make it out…is just not appealing. That’s when I think I ought to carry on because of the stuff that I do. If I am not around for my kids, for example, who will be? On a better day, I might even think about the theological work that I do. I should stick around; I might eventually do some good, when the dark fog lifts.

Wrong–for two reasons. First, the lifting of the dark fog is only ever temporary. Depression is a little bit like the weather. The sun may shine, but the rain is bound to return eventually. Second, and way more importantly, the good I might do, whether for my kids or for the world, is not what makes me significant. I tend to think that the meaning of my life is somehow bound up with what I can accomplish. (Nothing against accomplishments, here! They’re good.) It’s not true. God hasn’t put us in the world to do stuff, as if there were stuff he couldn’t get done on his own. The essential feature of human life is its relationship to God: to be loved by God, and to learn to love in return. That’s it.

Suicide might seem like the solution to the weary, grey, and lifeless burden of depression. After all, even if it does go away, the fog will return. Whatever happens after suicide, I’m guessing depression (as it’s related to  our way of being in the world in this life) isn’t going to be part of it. It’s hard to endure depression because it hurts, it slows me down, it makes me feel as if nothing I have done or will do justifies my existence on this planet. But what if my existence on this planet is already justified by God? What if I don’t have to do anything? What if God is like that teacher in Florida who compliments his students every day–if only I would come forward and listen?

Here’s what I have learned: self-respect is much, much more difficult than self-hatred. Hating yourself is easy: the whole world displays for us what we ought to be and do. And we fail. (At least I do–maybe some folks don’t.) So the natural response is to think, ‘I really ought to try harder. I could do better, couldn’t I?’ Then, when trying harder doesn’t do it, and I’m exhausted from the effort, I think, ‘Well, maybe I am just not good enough.’ Enter self-loathing. Self-respect, on the other hand, has to refuse the comparison. Self-respect has to be satisfied with what is truly my best effort and not reject it because it doesn’t produce the hoped-for results.

Maybe it’s good news, then, that self-hatred is sin. Not because now we can condemn it in one another–heavens, no! It’s good news because seeing this self-hating orientation as misdirection, as a turning away from God as well as an attack on self (an inward turning!), puts it in the light of grace. That doesn’t make it go away, but it does make fighting it part of the good fight of faith.

Deo gratias.

 

 

not this again

It is, I confess, one of those days. Unfortunately they are all too common these last few months. You know, the days when it all looks and feels pretty bleak, no matter what the weather. The sun is out today, actually, but it doesn’t matter. I know that the world is full of people whose lives are desperate and perilous in ways I can’t imagine, that hunger and thirst and terrible loss are the daily reality of so very many people in the world.

And I am sitting somewhere warm and reasonably comfortable. I have family and friends. I am not hungry or in danger. I can say to my daughters and sons when they are afraid at night that there’s nothing to fear–and I know that it is true. They’re safe, and they’re loved, and they have enough to eat and the opportunity to get an education and to play sports. Privilege. Luxury. Not only that, but the assurance of a strong faith and a hope that is in God and not in any of that stuff that makes life easy for the educated (a PhD, no less) white girl from the suburbs.

It’s all good. And yet, the overwhelming feeling is one of despair. Misery. For no reason. Everything shouts at me: be glad! But I am not glad. Or, rather, even though I know with an absolute certainty that somewhere inside there is gladness and hope, I cannot for the life of me find it. I can say to my soul, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? And why so disquieted within me? / Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance and my God.”

Probably those two verses–or is it only one verse?–are the only reason I made it from 22 to 32, when there were so very, very, very many days like this. And here they are again, both the days and the bit of Psalm 42 (and 43) that got me through them. So, I guess I will say, with some frustration and petulance, “Not this again!” But that won’t be the end. It never is.

Eventually it will be that other thing again, that hoping and smiling thing, that thing that is not-depression. The joy will find its way to the surface of my consciousness and I will not only realize that the sun is shining, but I will feel its warmth and see how bright and beautiful the snowy landscape appears, bathed in its light.

And I will say again, with proper feeling: Deo gratias.

Wednesday of the 31st week in ordinary time

The Lord is my light and my help;
  whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
  before whom should I shrink?

I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness
  in the land of the living.
Hope in him; hold firm and take heart!
  Hope in the Lord!
                                      Ps 27 [26]

*          *         *

What if the darkness, the enemy, is not on the outside? I don’t have enemies. Nobody wants to hurt me; I don’t have anything to fear. Not really.

Probably this is the case for lots of us. I have been reading Henri Nouwen on spiritual formation, and have just finished a section on fear, and the sorts of things we fear. Loneliness, failure, and poverty seem to top the list. Mental illness, though, might figure in somewhere. Depression and dementia threaten us from the inside, as it were, robbing us not of possessions but of our very selves. About dementia, I know little. About depression, I know way more than I want to. I know how depression eats away at hope and cripples love.

Knowing that “I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living” somehow fails to lift the darkness and gloom. As surely as I know it, and as firmly as I believe it, making the step from knowledge to hope is well nigh impossible. It is as though there is a black hole where joy and peace ought to reside, swallowing every tiny ray of light that comes near it. I can stand outside myself and see that the sun is shining, that I have everything I need, that I am loved by God and by my family. All these things ought to lift the darkness. But no: the blackness eats up all the comfort that this knowledge ought to provide.

The darkness comes from the inside and works its way out–in impatience and sullen silence, in not-caring and not-doing. I can see it seeping through the cracks, however much I would prefer to keep it to myself. I ask my soul, “why are you downcast?” and “why so disquieted within me?” I say, “Hope in God, for again I shall praise him!” I know it to be true, however little consolation it brings.

I dwell sometimes in darkness. That is just the way it is. Fortunately I have been up and down enough that at the bottom I can still just remember that it isn’t always like this. For that, and for the psalms, which have been my truest companions since I was a teenager (somehow reminding me that darkness is not my only companion), I am grateful. Because of the psalms, the thought comes unbidden (or is that the Holy Spirit?): “the darkness is as light to thee.”

So I wait, brooding, for the ‘fiat lux’ and for the dawn.

Deo gratias.